Should the New 9/11 Museum Tell the Whole Truth?


For a vivid example of the struggle going on over the legacy of 9/11, one had only to travel last Thursday from John Jay College on Tenth Avenue to the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, across from what was once called Ground Zero.

At John Jay, there was a ceremony to announce the opening of a new center to study disaster response named for Christian Regenhard, a probationary firefighter killed on 9/11.

Speakers noted that there were missteps and outright errors on 9/11 that deserve to be studied, and mentioned the respiratory problems afflicting thousands.

“The response to the disaster was incompetent at best,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler during the event. “We have thousands of sick workers who should not be sick, and many responders who died who would not have died had the response been better.”

Meanwhile, at Tribute WTC, tourists paid $10 each and filed into a warren of rooms that present a limited version of the story. The exhibit displays crumpled artifacts from the collapses and some quotes about the first hours of the disaster, but without context. FDNY radio excerpts are heard, but there is no mention of the widespread communication problems that day.

The hard work at the site is mentioned, but nothing about the health fallout. The World Trade Center is depicted as a great human achievement, with not a word about its years as a white elephant subsisting on government subsidies.

There’s a bit of politics, too: a favorable snapshot of Rudy Giuliani, and rah-rah quotes from President Bush and Governor Pataki.

Elsewhere, a gauzy documentary film accompanied by a suitably maudlin soundtrack depicts American flags, funeral carriages, grimy men in uniform saluting—in other words, all the iconic City Hall–approved images, again without any of the negative stuff.

But the Tribute Center is only a preview of the much more ambitious 9/11 museum to be completed in 2011. That’s where the real battle over the legacy will be fought.

Last week, construction workers set the first column for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which will cost close to $1 billion by the time it is completed.

The Voice wondered what people who lost relatives wanted to see in the museum: a “respectfully” sanitized version of events, like that at Tribute WTC, or the sort of full context that was being talked about at John Jay?

Retired fire chief Jim Riches, who lost his son on 9/11, says the history of the attacks shouldn’t be cleaned up for public consumption. “I don’t want to tell them what to do, but it should tell the story of the day,” Riches says. “It should all be in there so the next generation doesn’t make the same mistakes again. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

Rosaleen Tallon, who lost her brother Sean in the attacks, says she believes the museum’s curators should try to produce an unbiased examination of the day’s events, but doesn’t think they’ll offer anything like that. “I find it very hard to believe that there will be any serious discussion about the emergency response that day. It’s still in the control of the government, and so not everyone’s truth is going to be told,” she says. “It’s going to have a bit of propaganda—but, unfortunately, that’s the way the history of 9/11 is being written.”

Sally Regenhard, the mother of the firefighter that the John Jay College center will be named after, has been among the most politically active of the 9/11 family members. She says she believes that “political correctness” will eliminate any honest discussion of 9/11. “The entire story should be recounted, including the disastrous breakdown in communication, the lack of planning, the fact that the city was not prepared, the flaws in the towers’ design,” she says. “But I don’t see it being done. It’s awful to think that history will be flavored by political correctness.”

Lieutenant James McCaffrey, a firefighter who lost his brother-in-law, says the museum should focus on remembrance and what he calls the “terror and horror, what happened and who did it, and the bravery and magnificence.”

McCaffrey also believes that the museum has a responsibility to tell the full story. “Were there failures of the radios? Yes. Was there lack of preparedness? Yes. Look at Giuliani’s command center—will they put that in there? I don’t think so, but they should. It was part of that day, part of that story.”

There are also a number of experts who hope the full story is told. Glenn Corbett, an associate professor at John Jay who has spent years advocating for changes in how high-rises are built and fires fought, says the museum has to answer this question: “Are we going to pretend there were no flaws, or are we going to tell the true story?”

Corbett says the museum should discuss the radio failures, and how the buildings were designed, and how flaws in that design were exposed on 9/11.

“The bottom line is that we want people to think, not just remember, and come to their own conclusions when they leave,” Corbett says. “They should be given as many sides to the equation as possible and then allowed to draw their own conclusions.”

Jake Pauls, a leading expert on building evacuation based in Maryland, says the linkage between the memorial and the museum has “always been a bit of a puzzle.”

“There are a lot of issues the museum could examine,” he says. “The question is how you get into them. The controversies involve some fairly big actors. These are big targets. You will get all kinds of opposition.”

Indeed, the FDNY, the Port Authority, the city, the Giuliani faction, ex-Governor Pataki, and Mayor Bloomberg all have an interest in presenting a certain portrait of 9/11.

Of course, there are also family members who don’t believe the museum should examine the controversial stuff. Eileen Torres, who lost her cousin, a firefighter, in the attacks, says the museum should focus on remembrance. “It has to be about the people who died, honoring them,” she says. “There are extremely important issues, but they shouldn’t be the focal point. “

Lee Ielpi, who lost his son on 9/11, helped found the Tribute Center and sits on the memorial board. He says the museum should take a wider view. “We have an opportunity to show the events of 9/11, but we also have an obligation to inform the millions of people that will come here about the effects of hatred and intolerance,” he says.

“A lot of things happened here; some haven’t been proven,” he adds. “I’m more concerned about tomorrow. If you want to touch base, you can look at the controversies, but if you want to hit a home run, it’s the broader picture.”

And what about the people who are actually in charge of creating the museum? Alice Greenwald, the executive vice president for programs, offers some clues in an open letter on the museum’s website: “The museum at Ground Zero has the potential to educate and inspire with great power and authenticity,” she writes, and, “most importantly,” it will “facilitate the individual and communal grieving process.” Elsewhere, the website states that the museum will “bear solemn witness” to the attacks.

Salvatore Cassano, the top uniformed member of the FDNY and an advisor to the memorial group, answers the question carefully: “There are people with differing opinions,” he says. “It’s important to tell what happened that day, and at the same time, to be sensitive to the needs of the families so they don’t feel they are reliving it. It’s a gentle balance.”

Ask him whether the respiratory fallout should be part of an exhibit, and Cassano demurs. Ask him whether the problems in the emergency response should be highlighted, and he says: “They might be.”

With three years to go, the curators of the museum have plenty of time to struggle with these questions, but for inspiration, they might look at a quote posted on a wall just inside the Tribute Center gallery.

The line is from Michael Macko, the son of a victim in the 1993 bombing, who points out how that earlier attack has faded from public memory: “How quickly it was reopened . . . the hole filled . . . Over the years everything was forgotten. If we don’t remember these bombings, then we’ve lost more than the lives and the buildings.”